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In Praise of Older Siblings, Part 2: Will It Catch Fire

In the acknowledgment section of her memoir, Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith writes: “I wish to thank my family for trusting me to tell my story, which has brought elements of their stories to light. And I wish to ask forgiveness for anything they would have remembered differently or anything they’d have preferred to forget.”

I appreciate Smith’s words not only for acknowledging memory’s potentially flawed role in memoir writing, but also for the gratitude she expressed for the part her family played in the process. I, too, am grateful for my family’s acceptance of my writing, even if that writing sometimes involves them.

In my last post, Part 1, I discussed how my older brothers can help supplement (or contradict) my own memory during the nonfiction writing process. The second and final post of this series, however, focuses on how older siblings can provide some fact-checking even in the realm of fiction.

My oldest brother Scott is an elementary music teacher, a fact I took advantage of while writing my short story “The Clarinet” back in 2007. When I dig through my gmail inbox, I find the message I sent to him with a long list of inane questions about middle school concert band. Is the correct term “seating auditions” or “section auditions”? What’s a reasonable length of daily practice time for a talented, driven sixth-grade clarinetist? If someone steps on a clarinet ligature, would it easily bend? And on and on.

Scott wrote back the same day with answers to every last one of my questions. Unfortunately, this email chain does not contain what I consider my best, and perhaps most bizarre, question: What would happen if you took a cigarette lighter to a (wooden) clarinet? It wouldn’t burst into flames, obviously, but something would happen. Maybe it would singe or the wood would warp or it would smell funny.

If my unreliable human memory is correct, I asked Scott this final question on the phone. In my mind, I can see where I was at the time: in the bedroom in my old apartment by the lake. This was the apartment with arched entryways, steam heat, and a built-in ironing board that folded down from the dining room wall. I can see myself sitting on the bed in this apartment while asking my brother about setting fire to a clarinet. I remember him thinking it through, trying to guess what would happen if a flame did come into contact with the instrument.

Who knows if that memory is true. If you’d asked me before I sat down to write this essay, I would have told you that I’d posed this question in my original email. But I’ve searched gmail up and down, and that question about fire is nowhere to be found. Only then did the image hit me like a shock: how I’d called my brother while crossing the creaky hardwood floors of that apartment. The phone I used would have been a black cordless phone that couldn’t hold a full battery charge. My bed would have been covered with a battered white spread of chenille. I can see the pale cream of the apartment walls, the desk in the corner adjacent to the window, my cat’s litterbox shoved into the closet, and the cheap lamp shade full of dead midges.

When I think of asking my brother these research questions, I think of the apartment. I cannot separate the two. This wasn’t the first apartment I’d lived in alone, but it was the last, before I moved in with my now-husband—maybe that’s why. Or maybe I can’t shake it because this was where I lived when I took the largest strides in my early writing career. This was the apartment where I struggled, where I returned after my string of questionable writing groups, where I began freelancing, and where I finally faced my limitations as a writer and started to improve. It was where I began writing the short stories that would appear in my first book, including a story about a clarinet and a girl who wants to light it on fire.

It’s not often that I turn to my brothers for research assistance when I’m writing fiction. More recently, my research has involved, say, checking out a library’s entire collection of cannibalism books. But still, it’s nice to know my brothers are there, and that I can call on them if I suspect they have the answers I might need—or, in the case of writing nonfiction, if my own memory feels too faded or uncertain.

For example, I still can’t say for sure whether that phone call ever happened. I considered showing Scott this post in advance to see if he remembered me calling him nearly a decade ago to ask about lighting a clarinet on fire, but I decided against it. Maybe it’s better to let my memory stand, flawed and overflowing—a spark that started from nothing but managed, despite itself, to catch fire.